Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman last week continued his campaign to add $100 million of public funds over the next four years to civil legal services for the poor despite criticism from the governor that the court system is “not participating” in efforts to slash spending to help close a $10 billion state budget gap (NYLJ, Feb. 2).
Addressing about 300 people last Thursday at City University of New York School of Law in Queens, Judge Lippman said he sympathized with Governor Andrew M. Cuomo—but only up to a point.
“I commend [the governor] for trying to reduce spending. But still, we have to stand for something,” said Judge Lippman. “We have to get across to our political leaders that this issue—helping the most vulnerable when they need help the most—is equally important to everything else that is dear to us in society.”
The chief judge said that he was “hopeful” that legislators would agree with him.
Court administrators have put forward a budget of $2.7 billion for the fiscal year beginning April 1, a 1.7 percent increase of some $50 million over the current spending plan (NYLJ, Dec. 2, 2010). Mr. Cuomo, meanwhile, has asked executive branch agencies to cut spending by 10 percent.
A centerpiece proposal of the Judiciary’s proposed budget would add $25 million in new funds for civil legal services next year. That allocation would grow until it reaches $100 million in the fourth year. All told, the additional resources would increase by half the current funding of $208 million from federal, state, local, and private awards and contributions.
The CUNY speech was the chief judge’s second law school appearance last week at which he promoted his access to justice initiative in speeches laced with Biblical references and the invocation of New York’s progressive past.
On Wednesday, he told an audience gathered at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law for its Dean’s Lecture that “it is highly unusual” for a state’s judiciary and its chief judge “to take such a prominent and active leadership role on a policy issue of this kind.”
But with civil legal assistance threatened as never before by the economic downturn, he said that the courts could “no longer be passive or reticent on this issue.” The chief judge argued that “the time has come for the judiciary to lead—to speak out and take bold steps on behalf of New Yorkers, particularly those struggling to access the essentials of life—shelter, food, personal safety—those being denied access to justice because of indigency.”
Although the issue is complex and controversial to many, “I believe it is the solemn duty of judicial leaders, and the profession, to work tirelessly for positive change on an issue that is so intimately connected to the core role of our institution, and to our very reason for being,” the chief judge said.
“The Old Testament doesn’t talk about rights, it talks about obligations,” Judge Lippman said at CUNY. As lawyers, “If we don’t stand up for those who cannot help themselves, no one will.”
CUNY Law specializes in training attorneys for government and public interest practices and has a student body drawn largely from working-class households.
“We come from families and communities where hiring a lawyer is a luxury,” said Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, a third-year student and editor-in-chief of the CUNY Law Review, who organized the campus event.
The chief judge cited statistics collected by his Task Force to Expand Civil Legal Services that 2.3 million litigants appeared in New York courts without a lawyer last year: 99 percent in eviction cases in New York City and 98 percent outside the city; 97 percent of parents in child support matters in the city, 95 percent statewide; and 70 percent of homeowners in the city and 63 percent statewide who appear at mandatory foreclosure conferences.
‘Fundamental Human Rights’
Judge Lippman called the findings “mind-boggling,” asking rhetorically, “New York State is the progressive center of this country, and that’s where we are?”
“We are dealing with fundamental human rights here. That’s what we’re asking the Legislature to fund, and to understand.”
But funding for legal services has been made more difficult by the continuing decline in cash available through the New York State Interest on Lawyer Account Fund.
According to task force findings, IOLA-generated funds amounted to $32 million in 2008. In 2009, that dropped to $6.5 million for distribution in 2010.
With support from the Legislature and former Governor David Paterson, the Judiciary came up with $15 million to bolster IOLA. But projected IOLA funds for 2011 is $6 million.
Judge Lippman said he would again pledge Judiciary funds to match IOLA cash. But such an infusion, he said, would be “merely a band-aid on a gaping wound.”
“The poor of New York are not limited to the uneducated, or to immigrants. We have college-educated people who cannot afford lawyers,” he said “And in a lot of rural parts of the state, lawyers in public service are [among] the working poor,” earning salaries that “literally cannot support families.”
“We have a noble profession,” Judge Lippman said in an interview following his CUNY Law address. “For us, this is a crusade. This is our obligation. Crusade is the right word. We don’t want to have happen today what happened during the Great Depression [of the 1930s], when people were allowed to fall off the cliff.”
@|Tom Adcock is a writer in New York.